Why SBLs need to understand the learning process in order to develop it

Stephen Peach, assistant headteacher and business manager, Dacorum Education Support Centre, explores the reasons why SBLs need to observe the workings of the learning process closer

It always concerns me when I meet an SBM/SBL/whatever we’re called this week (WWCTW) who doesn’t want to engage with children. I understand that children in general – and teenagers, in particular – can be a peculiar breed; sullen and uncommunicative, still dragging the backs of their hands on the floor as they walk and touching soap with the kind of fragility that others would use when handling arsenic – all of which can make them resemble creatures from Star Wars; their faces hidden at the bottom of a dark hood with only their bright eyes visible to the outside world.

It can be a scary façade.

I find that making the effort to get to know children is always worthwhile – you get to know their individuality and uniquenesses – but, more importantly, you learn what their needs are and can prioritise these accurately. If you don’t take the time to work out what those needs are, how is the SBM/SBL/WWCTW going to meet them?

By way of example, I work in a Pupil Referral Unit with learners aged 4-16 years who come to us with a variety of SEMH problems. When the younger children become dis-regulated, and are unable to contain their behaviour, staff face significant difficulties in handling them because, in their moment of rage, when all they can see is impenetrable red mist, they seem to need to feel a sensory rush to begin the process of re-grounding and re-aligning their behaviour with social norms. Currently, they’re meeting this need by scaling a 2.4m anti-climb fence and doing their very best to escape from site. If they make it through the gate, all they do is run fifty feet to hide in a den.

There are two ways of looking at this problem

Firstly, I could solve the obvious problem and install prison-grade fencing to stop them climbing and remove all items that could be used to facilitate escape. Although this might mean that I feel that I have done my best to keep them safe, it would merely exacerbate the problem, as the children would have nowhere to go. In these circumstances, just as anyone would do if they felt trapped, the children tend to channel their destructive tendencies on the building itself, which is neither safe for themselves or staff, and costs a lot of money to rectify.

Alternatively, with my teacher hat on, I know that behaviour is often a reflection of an unmet need, so instead of merely preventing the dangerous behaviour, I can examine and discuss the children’s behaviours, triggers and needs with the specialist teachers who handle situations like this regularly. By putting the welfare of the child at the centre of discussions, we can determine what needs are not being met and, therefore, how to dissipate the aggression and help the children learn to self-regulate. By installing a really big climbing frame with a difficult to access escape space, situated in the opposite direction to the main gate, we can provide a focus for children’s behaviour at a time when they are unable to make sense of, or channel, their feelings in appropriate ways. In this way, staff would know where the children are and be confident that they are safe – which is not currently the case.

Analyse the needs of the learners

The more I think about the process that led to this solution, the more situations I can think of where our response to complex situations should be to put the needs of the children first. Staffing conundrums, COVID testing protocols, financial priorities, pretty much every problem that requires a – not-straight-forward solution – is best addressed by analysing the needs of the learners. Sometimes this feels counter-productive, awkward even; but being able to prioritise appropriately is the key to being a successful SBM/SBL/WWCTW. Being able to recognise conflicts and paradoxes, and working out solutions that value the ‘impact on learners’ above everything else, are the skills required to be an effective business leader in a school, and not just a manager/WWCTW.

I’m sure many people reading this will have seen some SBM/SBL/WWCTW’s prioritise financial rules over the work of the school – typically, by refusing to book events, or insisting on published deadlines being delayed for everyone because a couple of random parents have not yet paid, and generally putting financial priorities ahead of learners’ needs.

I think this is so wrong; schools exist for the benefit of the learners and their families (stakeholders) and if the financial rules are so inflexible, or the managers involved aren’t fully invested in the work of a school, people suffer, and a lot of unnecessary conflict and stress is caused because the teachers and financial managers are pulling in opposite directions.

Business managers – when was the last time you observed the workings of the learning process up-close? How well do you know the school SENCO and the children in each year group who they work with? When was the last time you watched a teacher inspire a class and thought through the specifics of what made the entire process so effective? And what, as SBM/SBL/WWCTW, you could do to improve it?

When was the last time you covered a class when a teacher was absent and properly understood the pressures and joys that teachers and staff experience every day? If your answer to that question was ‘never’ or ‘rarely’, how can a SBM/SBL/WWCTW possibly expect to do their job effectively?

Or to put it another way, headteachers – does your SBM/SBL/WWCTW have the right attitude to do the job you’ve given them, or are you setting yourself up to struggle to deliver your goals before you’ve even left the morning SLT briefing?

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